Martin Colegrove flinched when his mother drove over the pothole, the impact jarring the car as the tire snagged over the cavity’s ragged lip. October—the countryside a cluster of rusts, burgundies, cinnamons. Most of the fields were filled with soon-to-be-harvested stalks, creating wheat-tinted walls as his mother casually coursed along the cattail-spiked ditches lining the narrow backroads. After a moment, Martin returned his gaze to the passing countryside, eager to resume his daydream, savoring the novel notion that the straight-lined roads and squared-off tracks of farmland represented panels and frames in a pastoral comic book—the borders of his own boring story here in Sycamore Mill.
Martin mumbled, “Derek said it was about two miles down on Carriage.” Earlier that day on the school bus, Derek Kirby had scrawled-out turn-by-turn directions to his house.
His mother sighed. “Oh sure…Carriage Lane.” His mom’s comment made it sound as though she were talking to herself. Still he looked over at her, sensing that doing so might cough-up a clarifying comment. She glanced sidelong at her son and cleared her throat. “It was just a popular place out here in the country”—she fidgeted her fingers at the passing fields wavy walls of trees—“for high-school kids with too much time on their hands.” This was punctuated by a prim, almost embarrassed, I’ve-already-said-too-much nod.
Too much time on their hands. Martin got the picture, and the picture was…disturbing.
He’d only really started noticing girls over the past few years—in earnest now that he was roughly eight weeks into his freshmen year—and with passing the polished, female upper-classmen in the hallways (most of which were big-haired and made more attractive by overuse of cosmetics…their appearance sort of reminding Martin of the women on TV who were upset with President Clinton)—he’d found it difficult not to daydream, and so had only just began tinkering with the distant idea that his mom, too, had once been a girl. Possibly a pretty one. Mostly it was intolerable to conjure images of his mom as a younger woman. A younger anything. And now he suspected his mom had just taken a personal trip, however fleeting, down some intimate memory lane.
Martin returned to the window, to the flipping panels of predictability.
After several miles in which a physical ellipses of silence had settled, the station wagon slowed at the end of an overgrown gravel drive. A large house was crouched up there—a vague, gray structure cocooned within a weave-work of trees.
Martin’s mother pulled in, slowly jouncing over ruts as he scanned the front yard, the cornfield, the wide belt of woods surrounding the brindle-colored lawn. He was peering out when he saw the figure standing in the woods. Martin, after a second, recognized Derek Kirby, his pale, expressionless face almost floating in contrast to the dark interior of the woods.
Leaning toward the window, Martin thought he saw a thin gotcha-grin on Derek’s face, just before the older boy was concealed by overlapping tree trunks.
“You okay, kid-o?” said Martin’s mother.
After a moment Martin said, “Yeah, sure, fine.” He sat back and looked at the house—a two-story Victorian thing—a squarish structure which had once been white (maybe) but was now dishwater gray. Martin would have guessed it abandoned. “Just thought I saw something in the woods.”
“Like an animal?”
“Yeah,” Martin’s brow twitched. “Maybe.”
The station wagon slowed to a stop next to the front porch and, as if on cue, a woman stepped out. Martin assumed this was Derek’s mother. He unfastened his seatbelt, craning his neck to look out the back window, saw Derek strolling up the driveway, and shoved open the passenger door, slipping out of the car.
“Hey,” Martin said to Derek.
After a few beats, Derek said, “You guys have trouble finding the house?” He was taller than Martin, and angled his eyes down when speaking. A thick flannel shirt, his jeans fashionably shredded across the knees.
“No,” Martin shrugged. Something cool. “No sweat, man.”
The women, though strangers to one another, were chatting and laughing. Derek said, “Come on,” bopping Martin on the shoulder and gesturing toward the woods, “I want to show you something.” Martin began edging away from the station wagon to follow Derek.
“Martin,” his mom called. “It’s getting chilly out…don’t run off without a jacket.”
Jesus, Martin thought, does she think this is some sort of play date? Martin rounded the car and approached the driver’s side window, where his mother handed him his hooded sweatshirt. “Thanks,” Martin mumbled, reluctantly slipping into the hoodie.
Martin’s mom said, “I’ll be back in a couple of hours—about six, okay? I’m just going to go into town to run some errands.”
Martin began jogging, catching up with Derek, pulling up alongside the older boy on the wooded trail. “Where’re we going?” said Martin.
“It’s a secret,” Derek said, glancing over his shoulder, combing his scraggly, beginner’s goatee with his long fingers.
The path opened up into a small, leaf-strewn clearing situated above the embankment of a creek.
“Well, there it is,” Derek put his hands on his hips.
It took Martin a moment to notice what Derek was referring to—a lean-to fort, camouflaged with a dark tarp, branches, and other underbrush debris. Martin grinned, curious, approached the structure, crouching in for a closer look. “Cool.”
Derek picked up a fallen branch, about the size of Martin’s wrist, and broke it over his knee. “I started a new hide-out sort of thing.” With one piece of the splintered stick, Derek pointed to a crudely dug hole, a shovel sticking out of a large mound of dirt. “I was going to put boards over the top, turn it into an underground clubhouse.” Martin nodded, returning his attention to the lean-to. Inside was a crate of junk, couple flashlights, a crumpled pack of cigarettes, a bundle of faded baseball cards. He paused on a bunched-up sleeping bag in the corner. “You camp out here?” he asked.
Derek snorted. “Nah,” he said. “That’s for me and my girlfriend.” The older boy reached down and swept up the crumpled pack of cigarettes, fingering one from the pack. He fished a lighter from his pocket and swiftly lit one, exhaling a stream of blue-gray smoke. Martin tried not to gawk at this fascinating routine, and instead occupied himself with the crudely dug, dirt-walled pit.
A month before.
Because of how the route was arranged—and because of his family’s distant proximity to the school—Martin was one of the first kids on the bus, one of the last kids to leave. But on this morning, Martin hadn’t been the first passenger. A strange-looking guy sitting in the back of the bus. New kid.
The high school boys were a library of (what Martin suspected were defective) facts about sex. Martin eavesdropped a lot—the boasting and bragging, hearing about what to do to a girl’s body. Repelled and intrigued, most times Martin convinced himself that he had heard enough to skip what his father had frequently referred to as “The Talk.” Martin had deftly avoided that particular chat with his father for several years now; and his father, on a few occasions, had said things like, “Son, it’s about time we had that discussion,” or “Martin, we should sit down and have a serious chat—a man-to-man conversation.” Mercifully, his father was a busy man of moderate, civic importance in town, whose presence at formal dinner-time meetings conveniently supplied frequent absences at home.
One afternoon in early September—the school bus on the way home: Martin had been sitting alone, as usual, losing himself in one of his comic books. He caught movement at his shoulder.
The new kid was lowering himself over the seat, staring intently at Martin’s comic. Martin froze, steadying himself for whatever upper-classman ridicule was about to ensue.
“You like comics?” said the guy.
Martin nodded. “Yeah,” cleared his throat. “Spend most of my allowance on them.”
Instead of laughing the guy raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “Shit, man, I hear you.” He swung around and settled in next to Martin. “So—you got any other comics on you?”
Martin began rifling through his backpack, producing several glossy comics. The older boy smirked as Martin handed over the slender stack of books.
The older boy offered his pale hand. Martin shook, said his name.
“Nice to know you, dude. You got nice taste.”
Martin waited for a cruel punchline, but finally said, “Thanks.”
He was a tall guy—gangly, Martin thought. He had black, stringy hair, which dangled down over his eyebrows, an uneven tuft of hair on his chin. Though Derek carried himself with the ease of one of the popular kids, he looked gaunt, geeky. Martin was struck with the image—a punk-rock version of Ichabod Crane.
They became friendly—an affinity for illustrators like Frazetta, Mike Zeck, Frank Miller, the duo of Eastman and Laird.
“I have a fucking library of comics,” said Derek, though—during the intervening weeks—never produced a single issue to share. One afternoon, Derek said, “You should come over and hang out at my house some time.” Martin said he’d ask his mom for permission. One day, Derek gave him directions.
“So,” Derek said, smoothly exhaling a ragged, dragon’s tail of smoke. “You want to check out the rest of the place?” Derek finished his cigarette, butting it out against the bole of an oak.
Martin was still considering the things that Derek and his girlfriend had been doing out here. “Sure.” The boys departed, walking past the lean-to and the partially-dug bunker.
Martin followed Derek along a path, which curved and meandered around the property, eventually opening in the back yard. Derek snorted, gesturing toward something. “Take a look at this.” Martin saw an old well, which looked like everything else around here: crudely constructed and prepared to fall apart. Derek strolled over to the well, propping his hands on the lip of the opening. Martin approached, half-expecting to find a brick-lined tunnel leading into blackness. He leaned in and instead saw clumps of grass-bristled soil less than three feet down. He looked at Derek, who was smiling and nodding, as if agreeing with what he read in Martin’s expression. “Weird, huh?”
Martin grinned, “Yeah.”
Derek removed his hands from the mouth of the well. He looked around as though scrabbling for another anecdote, eventually extending a finger. “Found a dead fox out that way when I first started exploring—just bones and fur.” Martin nodded. “Most all of this stuff was like this when we bought the place.”
Martin wondered about the we. “What’s your dad do?”
Derek shook his head and glanced over his shoulder at the house. “Dad split when I was a kid. Just been me and her.” Derek jutted his head toward the house.
Martin noted a rusty swing set on the far side of the yard, two of the seats were missing, a few solitary chains hanging from the overhead rail. Shadows were creeping long across the weedy, untended expanse.
The boys entered the house through a back patio, what Martin would have described as a sun room; but the windows were warped and shower-curtain filmy, letting in little light. The space was cluttered with boxes Martin assumed were leftover from their move here. Everything smelled stale, skunky. There was a coffee table in the middle of the room, with an ashtray crowded with crumpled cigarette butts, most of which were smudged with crimson lipstick. Some of the butts didn’t look like cigarette filters at all, more like brownish stubs of tar-blotched paper.
The porch led directly into the kitchen. Derek’s mom was sitting at the table. The radio was on, what sounded like classic rock, and she was studying a calculator, along with what appeared to be a stack of bills.
“Hey,” Derek said, greeting his mom without slowing stride. “We’re going to hang-out upstairs for a while.”
The boys had almost made it to a stairway corridor when Derek’s mom said, “Wait a second,” and eased back from whatever she was working on. She smiled. “Aren’t you going to properly introduce your friend?”
Derek shuffle-turned and exhaled, clearly weary with this formality. Plattering his hand: “This is Martin—Martin, this is Gloria. Can we go now?”
Derek’s mother ignored the question, her slender hand shooting out. “Martin, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Please call me Gloria.”
Martin took hold of her hand, doing his best to avoid eye contact. Her parted-in-the-middle hair, long and straight and shiny. Her eyes were black-coffee bores. Her face, her skin—the color of nutmeg—was startlingly youthful. Not like a mom. How young is she? A wood-beaded bracelet clanked around her wrist as they shook hands; and then, releasing his fingers, she crossed her arms over her chest, cocking her head. “So, Martin, tell me about yourself.”
Martin rummaged through his mind, finding nothing she’d find remotely interesting. Her posture was loose, her smile disarming. He did not know the word bohemian, but an image of a swaying hippie flashed through his mind as he stalled on her inquisitive expression.
But before Martin could answer, Derek spoke. “Enough with the interrogation.”
Still smiling, Gloria Kirby glanced sideways at Derek. “I’m completely harmless, Derek. What’s wrong with getting to know your friends?”
Derek rolled his eyes. “All right,” said the older boy. “We’re all friends now. Martin, let’s go.”
Martin followed Derek to the narrow opening of the upstairs corridor.
“It was nice to meet you, Martin,” she said, resuming her work with the calculator.
“Nice to meet you too”—Martin almost said, Mrs. Kirby, but quickly checked himself—“Ms. Kirby.”
For the next forty-five minutes the boys hung out in Derek’s room, both poring over Derek’s impressive collection of comic books. Martin had taken a seat on the floor at the foot of Derek’s bed, swiftly losing himself in the books. The older boy, whose interest was perhaps rekindled by Martin’s enthusiasm, leaned back against his bed and began flipping through the comics. From time to time, each boy would point something out to the other—an inventive illustration, a deliciously lurid villain, a vibrantly-inked set of panels.
Eventually Derek, sighing, flung his comic on the floor and said, “Hey.” Martin, because of the older boy’s tone, tore his attention from the comic and peered at his grinning friend. The next thing Derek said was as casual as if he were asking Martin’s favorite food. “You like skin mags?”
Despite himself, Martin did his best to appear at ease with the question. “Sure,” he managed. In his fourteen years, the nearest thing Martin had ever seen to a “skin mag” was of the topless, tribal women in the National Geographic magazines on the coffee table at the barber shop. Martin cleared his throat. “Yeah, man.”
Derek’s eyes narrowed slightly, clearly weighing something. Then his expression changed. “Hang on a sec.” Derek rose, stepped around the scattered comic books, and locked the bedroom door. Martin watched Derek walk to the closet, crouched down and leaned into the shadowed space. Unable to see around his friend, Martin heard sliding and shifting, and after some maneuvering, Derek squirmed back out of the closet, cradling a large shoebox. With Derek having stepped out of the way, Martin could see a dark space in the back corner of the closet where a wall panel had been removed to create a cubby hole.
He placed the box on the floor in front of Martin and slowly lifted the lid.
A blond woman—who was cupping one of her bare breasts with one hand, while the other hand snaked down between her legs—stared up at Martin with an open-mouthed, almost sleepy expression. The title of the glossy magazine read High Society. Martin glanced up at his still-smirking friend, who then reached into the box, the gesture somehow consenting Martin to do the same. After a stretch of hesitation, Martin lifted one of the magazines. Heart drumming, he opened the pages of something called Club, his mind instantly swaying as he scanned the photos—segments of flesh he’d only ever guessed at. After a few minutes, he dropped the issue and grabbed the next magazine in the shoebox, this one called Hustler.
The women in this magazine were placed in erotic scenarios which appeared comically absurd to Martin—a nurse having sex with a patient, a housewife screwing the plumber, French maids kissing each other or rubbing themselves with feather dusters.
“So what do you think?” asked Derek, who was up on the bed, reclining against the headboard.
Derek snorted, “Yeah,” and the bedroom fell into a long stretch of companionable silence.
For Martin, with every flip of the page, with every sexual spectacle, another forbidden question was being answered. From time to time, the women’s faces would blur and blend with some pretty, brittle girl from at school—a vague, hair-spray-plumed stranger. At one point he shifted his sitting position to bring his knees up closer to his body, trying to eliminate the embarrassing possibility that Derek might notice.
A phone rang somewhere in the house. Martin half-folded the magazine, sat forward and glanced up and over at Derek who was leafing through an issue of Penthouse.
He heard Ms. Kirby’s muffled voice coming from the kitchen below. After about a minute came a note of finality followed by the unceremonious sound of Derek’s mom hollering upstairs. “Boys,” came Ms. Kirby’s voice. The stiffness in Martin’s jeans immediately receded.
Derek raised his voice evenly. “Yeah?”
“Martin’s mom will be here in about fifteen minutes.”
“All right we’ll be down in a minute.”
Derek rolled off the bed and began gathering up the magazines, re-lidding the pornbox and crossing to the closet where he set the box back in the secret niche and replaced the small panel of wood.
Standing, Martin glanced around the floor at the scattered comic books which—before the revelation of the “skin mags”—had seemed to contain infinite imaginative possibility. He picked up one of the comics he’d been particularly impressed with: an issue of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. “Hey,” Martin waved the comic book in the air, “can I borrow this?”
Derek didn’t even look over; he shrugged. “Sure, whatever. But bring it back to me on the bus tomorrow.”
“Sure,” Martin grinned. “No problem.”
Friday evening, a week later.
On the night of an impromptu sleepover, Martin and Derek ran through the woods for an hour or so, killing time in the seemingly endless warren of paths, their voices echoing into the tangled netting of black boughs. At one point Derek broke away and disappeared. Calling out for Derek, Martin wandered back to the campsite. He was walking by the lean-to when Derek, screaming, jumped out of the dirt pit like some ghoulish Jack-in-the box. Both boys laughed at this, Derek slightly more than Martin.
The setting sun sent spokes of light through the interlaced branches of oaks and elms, the orange tints dimming to crimson on the sky’s fringes.
Derek’s mother was in the kitchen cooking dinner when the boys—chuckle-panting and chilled from the dusky air—entered through the back porch.
“Just in time, gentlemen,” she said, lifting a crookedly shaped hamburger patty from a hissing skillet. The radio was on in the kitchen and Martin could hear the TV over in the living room; he noticed some lighted candles here and there, like Ms. Kirby was getting ready for some sort of party. Derek stepped over to a wooden cutting board and helped himself to a segment of sliced orange. Martin noticed that Ms. Kirby’s long hair was fastened in the back with a set of chopsticks. “You two get cleaned up,” she said, smoothly moving along the stove.
“Do you want to take a shower before dinner, Martin?” said Derek’s mom.
“Uh,” he glanced at Derek, who made a pinched face, the expression suggesting he’d didn’t have to if he didn’t want to. “No…I’m okay, I’ll just wash my hands.”
Ms. Kirby smiled, resumed her cooking.
As the boys settled down at the table, Ms. Kirby slid two paper plates with two hamburgers in front of each boy.
To Derek she said, “Since I cooked, how about you clean…deal?”
Derek was already nodding, apparently familiar with the routine. “Sure. Deal.”
“Is there anything else you boys need?” There wasn’t. They thanked her and began eating. “I’m going to hop in the shower, Derek,” her voice echoed in the dark rectangle of corridor leading upstairs.
“Sure thing,” Derek said through a mouthful of meat and bread.
After dinner the boys headed upstairs. Rounding the corner on the second floor, passing by Ms. Kirby’s bedroom, Martin could hear the sound of the shower—a needle-hiss noise seeping through the margin of her partially opened door.
Derek flipped on the light in his room, stepped over a heap of discarded clothes and crossed to the closet, leaning in and removing the false panel. Derek came around with the shoe box, hiked his chin and said, “You might want to close that,” meaning the bedroom door. Martin crossed to the door, closed it, twisted the lock.
And once again, the recently-ritualized routine: Martin sitting on the floor, legs crossed, leaning back against the foot of the bed, poring over the pictures: their eyes half-lidded, their faces frozen in mid-moan. Martin regarded the older girls at school differently now. All secrets known. Derek sat on his bed, propped-up against a pillow like an overworked businessman relaxing with his pipe and newspaper. Now and again (and not for the first time) Martin had the urge to mock the absurdity of some of these scenarios, wanting to point this out to Derek; but he wondered if his host might take offense and, as a consequence, shut the box indefinitely.
Martin—as he’d been rehearsing to do so for days—was preparing to ask Derek if he could borrow one of the magazines when several knocks sounded on the bedroom door.
Martin flinched, slapping shut the magazine on his lap and fixing his eyes on Derek.
Derek looked up but didn’t but appeared unfazed. “Yeah?”
“Did you do the dishes?”
“Fuck,” Derek murmured, then raising his voice to say, “No.”
A steady stretch of silence. Then: “I thought we had a deal.”
“Yeah.” Silence. “Yeah, we did—we do.”
Martin waited for the creak of the hardwood indicating Ms. Kirby’s retreat, but it was quiet for a long time. “Derek—”
“I’ll get it in a minute,” his voice grew louder.
“—if you’re going to have friends over—”
“I just forgot, it’s no big deal.”
“—I expect a little help with this…the plan was—”
“I SAID I’D GET IT IN A MINUTE, GLORIA.”
Nothing for a few beats, then came the creaking of hardwood and fading footsteps.
“Jesus,” Derek exhaled. “Stay here.” He flung a Playboy on the floor, “I’ll be right back.” He strode to the door then stopped, his hand clutching the knob. “If you’re going to keep those out,” he said, gesturing at the scattered magazines, “I’d lock this door.”
Then Derek slipped into the dark hallway, pulling the door shut behind him. Martin got up and quickly locked it.
He sat on the edge of Derek’s bed, waiting to hear angry voices—waiting to hear Derek verbally getting his ass chewed out. But nothing happened. Martin’s mind drifted to what sort of punishment his own father might dispense in that sort of situation.
He listened. Now came something like low-level conversation, the distant sounds of clanking dishes, of chairs legs yelping on the linoleum.
No longer interested in the mags, Martin scanned Derek’s bedroom—the peeling wallpaper, the rusty blotch on the ceiling. Simply glancing at these things gave Martin a flinch of homesickness, a hunger for his simple comic books, his own bedroom.
He was toying with the notion of turning on the old TV on the dresser when his attention snagged on the closet, the door standing halfway open. Martin blinked at the dark rectangle of false wall in the back. But now he squinted harder, seeing something else—something in the shadowed corner on the opposite side of the closet.
Eyes fixed on the spot, Martin moved to the closet, crouching down and leaning in. The other side of the space had a similar section of wall, bowed-out, flimsy. There was a black, pencil-scratch fissure there. Another cubby hole. Experimentally, he gave the panel a try. The rickety rectangle of false wall popped out of the coving, a few well-placed nails squeaking from their grooves—a dark interior. With his upper body blocking the light, Martin had trouble seeing into the narrow niche. He slid his hand into the opening, fingers fishing blindly along what felt like splintery, dust-covered studs. His knuckles brushed something. A paper-wrapped package which he slowly withdrew. It was about the size of a large mailing envelope. Martin licked his lips, sounds of dishes being stacked, cabinet doors opening and closing continued from the kitchen just beneath the floorboards. He leaned back into the light and stood, pausing before pulling back the paper lip and peeking in.
The envelope housed a slim stack of magazines—Witchcraft. Martin slid one from within.
Seated cross-legged before a red backdrop was a nude woman, hands pressed together, offering a prayer to an inverted crucifix. Her head was concealed beneath a large, taxidermied goat head: thick, corkscrew-spiral horns curling back behind its whiskery, donkey-like ears. The goat’s long, frayed beard tapered down to the woman’s pale sternum.
Three other magazines were in the stack, all with similar gimmicks—naked women worshipping coiled snakes, variations of cloaked, goat-headed priests—Death Cults. Orgies. The law of the Lash.
There existed the same silliness as the staged, almost comedic porn from Derek’s other magazines, but there was something different in these vignettes, something, for Martin, more penetrating.
He noticed then a weight, a hump at the bottom of the envelope.
The envelope contained a rubber-banded stack of Polaroids, about the thickness of an eight-track tape.
The girl in the picture was cupping her bare breasts. And though her face was out of frame Martin assumed it must be Derek’s girlfriend. He tried to deftly unloop the rubber band, but it snapped apart in his fingers, dropping to the floor. Ignoring it, he quickly flipped to the next shot—this one taken from the side. The girl was on her knees, back arched—the photo all pale torso, curvy hips, rear end. The poor quality of the photos, along with the harsh, flash-bulb glare against her skin, bothered Martin almost more than the clumsily choreographed pornography. Nothing staged here.
A more lurid one came next—the model’s fingers forked down. The picture had caught part of the model’s clavicle and chin, a partially opened mouth, a dark scarf of hair hanging over her arm.
Martin fanned the photos out in front of him. Though none of the shots exposed the her full face, Martin thought, Same girl, same girl. Same woman. But then he stalled on one of the last photos, scrutinizing it, understanding the figure in photos was not a young girl at all.
Three rapid knocks on the bedroom door. Martin flinched. He did his best to rearrange the Polaroids, but in his frantic attempt he fumbled the stack of photos, a few skidding to the floor. He clawed at the pictures, sweeping them up and sliding them back into the envelope.
Raps again, this time with more emphasis. “What’s the hold up, man?” said Derek. “Come on, open up.”
“Just a sec,” Martin said, voice strained. He crouched back into the closet, returning the envelope to the crevice, doing his best to realign the nails along the seam of the false wall.
Then he was up, striding across the room and unlocking the door.
Derek’s white face swam up out of the darkened hallway. “The hell?” he said, reentering the bedroom. “You jerking off in here or what?”
After a moment: “Yeah,” he forced a laugh. “Did you get in trouble?”
“Nah,” he said, closing and relocking the door behind him. “She just gets fucking loony sometimes, you know?”
Martin did not. “Yeah,” he snorted. “Sure.”
Derek appeared as if he were about to reclaim his spot on the bed. But then he bristled and froze in the middle of the room. He was staring at the floor.
Martin followed Derek’s gaze, down to the limp length of broken rubberband—a gag parasite.
Martin’s already jack-hammering heart sped up to a rapid tattoo—it thudded in his throat and ears, threatened to drown out Derek’s voice.
Derek muttered, “Why…” but the older boy’s voice broke off. A frown wrinkled his brow, as if confronted with a nearly graspable riddle. Then the expression changed, his face growing slack. Derek’s gaze went from the floor to the closet before settling on Martin.
Clueless as possible, Martin said, “What?”
Derek crouched down and snatched up the rubberband, retraining his eyes on Martin. Derek’s face was a sneering question mark. “Where’d this come from?”
Tell him the truth—I was curious and I was just snooping around. I’m sorry. It was none of my business. He conjured an intrigued expression and reached out. “What is it? Looks like trash?”
Derek pulled back. He flicked another touch-and-go glance at Martin, offering no response as he stepped toward the closet, peering in. Again, Derek scowled. “Did you…”
Martin was running out of time, running out of gestures to sustain his play-acting. “Hey, man,” said Martin. “I’m going to grab something from my bag downstairs. I’ll be right back.”
Derek said nothing as Martin unlocked the door, rattle-twisted the handle, and stepped into the corridor.
Martin maneuvered through the hall, toward the rectangle of light coming up from the steep staircase leading down into the kitchen, his heartbeat in sync with the thudding of his sneakered feet on the hardwood. His duffel bag was in the kitchen, where he’d left it earlier that evening. There was also a phone down there.
Martin closed in on the threshold of the narrow corridor and, moving too fast, nearly collided with the partially-clothed Ms. Kirby.
She was wearing a silk robe. “Oh,” she said, laughing and clutching some of the shiny fabric near her chest. “You frightened me, Martin.” She tucked a shower-damp ribbon of black hair behind her ear as she stepped around the boy.
Resuming some task at the cupboard, she said, “Is here something you needed, Martin?” The bathrobe was dark blue, its design was something Martin associated with exotic garb he’d seen in movies. Kimono—the word rushed through his mind among a chatter of other thoughts. The garment was belted around the pear-shaped curves of her hips and hung loosely over her shoulders. The material shimmered fluidly under the harsh fluorescent light in the kitchen. The hem of the short robe came down well above her knees.
When Martin didn’t answer, Gloria turned, eventually smiling and raising an eyebrow. “Martin?”
He breathed, “Oh—yeah,” his eyes darting to the dark green phone on the wall. “I was wondering if I could use the phone.”
The woman gently shut the cupboard and slowly pivoted. She blinked a number of times. “The phone?”
Martin cleared his throat. “Yeah”—his voice reedy, frail—“yes. I just forgot to tell my mom something.”
Something twitched under her pleasant expression—a subtle spasm that momentarily dulled her attractive features. She placed her lacquer-nailed fingers on the counter next to the cutting board. “Is something wrong?” The folds on her loose-hanging kimono had opened slightly. Martin’s midsection twisted as he snatched an inadvertent peek at the soft line of her exposed collarbone, the Y-fold opened to expose a milky slit.
Martin refocused—the wall-mounted phone. “No—nothing’s wrong.” He coaxed a composed smile.
A frown flitted over her face and disappeared. “Sure, Martin,” she said, adjusting the partially open fold on her chest. “As long as everything’s okay.” She turned toward the sink. “I want Derek’s friends to be comfortable in this home.”
Swallowing, Martin took a few paces and lifted the receiver from the cradle. He was able to dial three numbers when he heard a door burst open upstairs—the sound followed by several long-striding stomps. A voice roared down through the stairwell. “Gloria?” Martin froze with the receiver raised next to his cheek.
Ms. Kirby’s wet-threaded hair jostled as she jerked her face toward the stairs. “What’s the matter?”
“Is Martin down there?” The voice reverberated as it echoed down through the passage.
Ms. Kirby gave Martin a smooth, up-and-down scan, her dark eyes narrowed on him. “Yes he is.”
Silence for what seemed like a hundred heartbeats. Finally Derek’s voice came again. “Martin?” he said. If Derek had been attempting to sound calm and inviting it didn’t work. To Martin, the voice no longer sounded like Derek but someone older. For a nauseating moment Martin imagined it sounded like his own father’s voice. “Martin, I need you to come back up here for a minute.”
Phone still raised at chin-level, Martin’s lips had gone numb and were parted in a dumb expression. He was holding his breath. Martin’s paralyzed silence served as his response, provoking another call from upstairs.
“Gloria?” The voice still sounded older—a distorted version of Derek. “Don’t let Martin leave.”
For a moment, Ms. Kirby and Martin were staring at each other in unblinking unity. And in that moment Martin thought he saw something uncoil in the dark, glittering pinpoints of Ms. Kirby’s eyes—something like comprehension. And maybe panic.
Ms. Kirby slid her hand off the cutting board at precisely the same moment as Martin dropped the phone and dashed toward the patio door, flinging open the screen and launching himself off the porch steps.
It was deep night now. The October-chilled air filled Martin’s lungs, stinging in quick gasps as he broke into a sprint across the yard. He rounded the side of the house, intent on getting to the driveway. Then came the whine and bang of the patio door, followed by the brief pounding of feet on the porch.
He gambled a glance over his shoulder. A tall, slim shape emerged from the side of the house—a swift-loping, long-limbed silhouette. As Martin crossed the front yard, the porch light came on and Ms. Kirby opened front door.
Martin darted across the gravel driveway, suddenly catching sight of the tunnel-path that led into the forest. He pumped his fists, racing along the leaf-littered trail.
Martin was sickly certain that if he stayed on the path, Derek would catch up with him. He angled left into the underbrush, weaving through the black-stilted trees, swatting at the low-hanging branches.
Martin’s frantic thoughts came like hitching gasps. He had the fleeting idea that if he could just make it through the small belt of trees—if he could find the creek and follow it out of the woods—he would emerge in the cornfield over by Carriage Road—follow Carriage Road back to the main road, back to familiar streets. He was already pasting together an explanation to his parents—Derek and I…I don’t know…I just wanted to come home…
The forest rushed up and around Martin as he pitched forward into the large hole. Derek’s half-finished bunker. The hide-and-seek pit. He collided against the bottom of the earth-chilled ditch, the wind thrusting out of him in a wheezy punch. Martin tried to turn over, his fingers dragging damp dirt and tendrils of exposed roots.
Wincing, clenching his teeth, he rolled over, fighting the urge to vomit, blinking grit from his eyes, spitting dirt. Through squint-slitted eyes, Martin looked up out of the hole, expecting Derek to appear at the edge. But instead—and with the exception of his pain-stitched breathing—he heard only crickets and night-stillness.
Far off, back toward the house, a single, sexless scream unsutured the silence. There came then the snapping of twigs and underbrush, the rustle of dead leaves.
As the footsteps drew closer, Martin caught sight of the bone-colored rind of moon, partially visible through the branch-knotted canopy overhead.
A pale face, appearing gray in the dim moonlight, slowly bloomed over the dirt-ragged rim of the crudely dug hole. Awful truths crawled their way into his mind—the final frame on the last page of his imaginary comic. With the black backdrop of forest behind it, the marble-gaunt face gave the illusion of disembodiment—a skull balloon floating in the gloom. The skull spoke. “Martin,” it was the voice again—not Derek’s as he remembered it. Fatigued. Torn at the corners. His father’s voice. “Come back up to the house,” it said. “Gloria wants to see us.”
The figure knelt and extended what may have been an extremity. Though his cheeks were slick, Martin was no longer crying. He sniffled, swiped at his eyes and dragged himself up to a crouch. Martin Colegrove reached out and took hold of the long thing, what felt like a sinewy, hoof-ended limb.